Ruth Madoc obituary
Ruth Madoc, who has died after a fall aged 79, cemented herself in the memories of TV sitcom viewers as Gladys Pugh, chief yellowcoat and Radio Maplin announcer in Hi-de-Hi!
After playing three “chiming” notes on the xylophone, Gladys would greet Maplins holiday camp guests over the Tannoy in her lilting Welsh tones with the words: “Hello, campers. Hi-de-hi!” Many responded from their chalets: “Ho-de-ho!” Then she would outline events news such as: “Knobbly knees contest begins at 3pm.”
The BBC programme, created by David Croft and Jimmy Perry following their success with Dad’s Army, was originally set at the end of the 1950s and focused on the entertainment staff at an Essex-coast holiday camp in the vein of Butlin’s and Pontins. Following a 1980 pilot, Hi-de-Hi! ran for nine series from 1981 to 1988. As Gladys, Madoc held a torch for Maplins’ new entertainments manager, Jeffrey Fairbrother (played by Simon Cadell), a former Cambridge University don embarrassed at the low-brow humour of acts on his team such as the comedian Ted Bovis (Paul Shane), the camp host much liked by holidaymakers.
Gladys disapproves of Ted’s scams to cheat them out of money with rigged bingo and other activities, but feels greater emotion – heartbreak – when Jeffrey leaves at the end of the 1983-84 series.
In the Channel 5 documentary Comedy Gold: Hi-de-Hi (broadcast in March this year), Gyles Brandreth described the relationship between Gladys and Jeffrey as “like Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, with laughs – suppressed lust on her side and English confusion and embarrassment on his”.
“Gladys Pugh is a vamp from the Valleys,” said Madoc, jokingly, of the character that brought her recognition from up to 16 million viewers and shouts in the street of “Ho-de-Ho!” She said she brought to Gladys an accent from that area of Wales, which added to the comedy, notably with her references to the “au-lympic” swimming pool.
She also took the opportunity to bring foreign flair to Gladys. “I asked Jimmy Perry if I could base her on a wonderful woman of the 1950s called Zizi Jeanmaire,” said Madoc. “She was a beautiful French ballerina and she was the first one to do that gamine hairstyle.”
Ruth was born to Welsh parents in Norwich, Norfolk, during the second world war. Her mother, Iris (nee Williams), was working there as a nursing matron while her father, George Baker, was an administrator at three Norfolk hospitals. “My mum couldn’t get home quick enough to have me, so I was born in Norfolk,” she said.
Her father was a distant relative of David Lloyd George, the former Liberal prime minister later played by Ruth’s first husband, the actor Philip Madoc, in the 1981 TV series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George, in which she had the role of one of his lovers, Lizzie Davies. While her parents travelled around England after the war “doing important jobs” and helping to establish the newly launched NHS, she was brought up by her maternal grandparents in the coalmining village of Llansamlet, outside Swansea.
After spending three months as an assistant stage manager at Nottingham Playhouse, she trained at Rada (1959-61), saying she was well prepared for the audition, having received elocution lessons from her grandmother, Etta, from the age of three for reading in a local chapel.
From Rada, Madoc went into three years as a singer and dancer in The Black and White Minstrel Show TV programmes and tours, and then a summer season with the Fol-de-Rols, another music hall company. She made her musical acting debut as Maria in West Side Story at the Scarborough Summer theatre in 1968, which was followed by her first West End role, taking over as Aldonza in the original London production of Man of La Mancha (Piccadilly theatre, 1968). Madoc had her first screen roles in two 1971 feature films, as the fortune-telling Mrs Dai Bread Two in Under Milk Wood, alongside Richard Burton, and playing the ghost Fruma Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof.
On TV she had a regular role as Betty, the schoolteacher wife of detective sergeant “Smithy” Smith (Ewan Hooper), in all three series of the Midlands police drama Hunter’s Walk (1973-76). During Hi-de-Hi!’s long run on TV, Madoc reprised her role as Gladys for a stage tour that included a run at the Victoria Palace theatre in London (1983-84).
Later, on television, she played Mrs Thomas, mother of Daffyd, Matt Lucas’s Welsh “only gay in the village”, during the second and third series (2004-05) of Little Britain. Although shocked at the expletives in the script when she was offered the role, she was told that it was written specially for her by Lucas, and her real-life son said it would give her “street cred”.
There was a return to sitcom when Madoc acted Georgie, a dog trainer and “Welsh dame” of the travelling Circus Maestro, in Big Top (2009), although the series took a critical panning and failed to catch on with viewers.
Thriving on musicals, Madoc took other stage parts, including Lettie in Something’s Afoot (Ambassadors theatre, 1977-78); the title role in Irma La Douce (Theatr Gwynedd, Bangor, 1976); Rose in a 1989 tour of Gypsy; and Mrs Bardell, alongside Harry Secombe’s title character, in a revival of the musical Pickwick on a tour including the Chichester Festival theatre and Sadler’s Wells.
Less well-received were a revival of Bless the Bride (Sadler’s Wells, 1987), with Madoc as Suzanne, and Nite Club Confidential (Playhouse theatre, 1988), playing Kay Goodman.
Her 1961 marriage to Madoc ended in divorce 20 years later. In 1982 she married John Jackson; he died in 2021. She is survived by the two children of her first marriage, Rhys and Lowri.
• Ruth Madoc (Margaret Ruth Llewellyn Baker), actor, born 16 April 1943; died 9 December 2022